HomeUS CoinsGhosts of Times Passed: The Remnants of the Columbian Expo

Ghosts of Times Passed: The Remnants of the Columbian Expo

By Dan DuncanRetired, Pinnacle Rarities ……

As thousands ascend on the greater Chicago area for the American Numismatic Association’s (ANA) World’s Fair of Money, we recognize that Chicago has a rich history of grand fairs and numismatics–specifically the Columbian Exposition, arguably the greatest fair in American history. The event saw some 27 million attendees cross through its gates during a short six-month run. The many innovations introduced at the fair–things like the zipper, instant oatmeal, and Cracker Jacks–are still part of daily life worldwide.

But numismatically speaking, the fair gave birth to the classic commemoratives with the series’ first two coins – the Columbian half dollar and the Isabella quarter. And the state is connected to four coins from the series that runs until 1954 and includes 144 individual issues with 50 different designs.

Today, nearly all of the original “White City” buildings are gone, so-called for their plaster exteriors. Nevertheless, if you look closely, there are still a few remnants. And if you plan to attend the ANA’s summer show, perhaps you can take the time and check out some of the pieces and parts that remain from the 1893 Columbian Exposition World’s Fair.

Jackson Park

In the years leading up to the Expo, the actual location of the upcoming World’s fair was greatly contested.

When Chicago won out over New York, St. Louis, and Washington DC, the debate was not over. The site for the fair was up in the air until Jackson Park was eventually chosen. The park needed work and was eventually completely renovated, with canals and artificial hills. The architectural firm of Burnham and Root was chosen to act as chief planners. Root passed away unexpectedly in 1891 and Daniel Burnham sidelined other projects to focus on the Expo. He and Charles Atwood, his Designer-in-Chief, gathered the nation’s top architects, inviting them to meet at Burnham’s newly built high-rise offices – the Rookery. It is within these walls that the plaster-covered buildings that turned the park into the White City were conceived and collated. He brought in Frederick Law Olmsted, whose work included Central Park in New York and the grounds of the U.S. Capital and White House, to design the landscaping. Over the next two years, Olmsted literally transformed the Park using both native and non-native plants.

While very little of the White City remains, some of the trees living in the park were planted for the Expo, with several of them actually predating the fair. The majority of the lagoons are the direct work of Olmsted. The Expo changed the Park forever and it remains rich in the spirits of the Columbian Expo.

Museum of Science and Industry

The only remaining major building from the fair proper is the Museum of Science and Industry. It was originally the Palace of Fine Arts.

After the fair ended, the building reopened as the Field Columbian Museum and had artifacts from the fair on display. The museum was moved to Grant Park in 1921, and the building was vacated until Sears CEO Julius Rosenwald provided funding for major renovations. The building was basically completely rebuilt in the image of the old one and is now dedicated to science.

The new Museum of Science and Industry opened during another Chicago great fair – the World’s Fair of 1933. The renovated exterior replaced the plaster walls with limestone and it is no longer white. The entrance was moved and now the back faces Jackson Park, which was the front of the building during the Expo. Visually, however, the building presents as it did in 1893, with some of the original lamp posts still lighting the museum’s campus.

The Wooded Island

Inside Jackson Park, a small island rises out of the main lagoon. When the grounds of the fair were being created, Olmsted had excavated dirt and turned a peninsula into an island. Upon this man-made cay, the Japanese Government built Ho-o-den, the temple that served as Japan’s pavilion for the Exposition. At the time, there was only a small garden, but over the past century, the garden has been restored and expanded. The cherry blossoms from these later works remain and the small island serves as a glimpse into what must have been a treat for 19th-century fair goers and an exotic introduction to Japanese heritage.

Art Institute of Chicago

Built close to Grant Park near the Expo fair grounds, the Art Institute’s current building was originally used as a meeting place and for lecturers during the fair – including the famed 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions. Trustees of the AI negotiated with the city’s civic bodies for the construction, which was completed in 1893. The Institute paid for half of the costs and occupied the building in December of 1893 after the fair had ended. It remains there today.

Statue of the Grand Republic

One of the outstanding features of the fair in 1893 was the large statue that stood overlooking the Midway, often referred to as “The Golden Lady”. Officially, Daniel Chester French’s work was named the Statue of the Republic. It is featured in many of the photographs that captured the classical glory of the fair. Covered in gold leaf it stood an impressive 111 feet and welcomed visitors with uplifted arms. The original is long gone, but a gilded reproduction stands today just a few hundred feet from the original court. Today’s version is just one-third the original in height, and instead of attendees to the White City, it welcomes golfers to the Jackson Park public course.

The Field Museum

Originally housed in the Palace of Arts after the fair closed, the Field Columbian Museum moved and later was renamed The Field Museum. The museum’s Anthropology collections contain over 50,000 objects that were on display at the expo, mainly from three buildings: the Anthropology Building, the Horticulture Building, and the Mines, Mineralogy, and Metallurgy building. Other objects in the collection are from various other exhibits and villages from the fair.

While no permanent Columbian Expo exhibit is displayed at the current museum, they do special exhibitions dedicated to their heritage from time to time. Regardless, The Field Museum and the other museums on the “museum campus” are a must-visit in downtown Chicago.

Yerkes Observatory

One of the great innovations available for viewing at the Columbian Expo was the World’s largest lens-type telescope. It is now housed in the Yerkes Observatory, under the stewardship of the University of Chicago. The observatory was built in 1897 and is considered the astronomical outpost for the University and is called the birthplace of modern astrophysics.

Ticket Booth

With most of the fair lost to time and attrition, just a few smaller pieces of the fair are still physically available for viewing.

One small element is a building now situated in the side yard of a famous Oak Park residence. The DeCaro House (313 N. Forest Ave.) was remodeled by Frank Lloyd Wright in his Prairie style. As a representation of two distinct phases of the famed architect, the main house draws the attention of architectural historians.

But the glorious home features an unusual garden decoration that once stood at the gates of the grand Expo – a refurbished ticket booth. The small wooden structure that once sat at the entry to the fair has withstood the past century as a toolshed and rabbit hut. It is now just an ornament offering a tiny glimpse of the White City.

The Rookery

The Rookery was the headquarters of John Root and Daniel Burnham’s architectural firm and the building was a highlight to the firm’s portfolio. The building that was completed in 1888 once had an unobstructed view of the lake. Located at 209 S. LaSalle St., the edifice is a Chicago landmark where the nation’s top builders drafted the blueprints for the White City from the firm’s office on the 11th floor. The building has undergone a number of restorations but maintains an interior design and architectural feel reminiscent of the bygone era right down to a replica of the original carpeting and a library that is said to be a walk back in time.

The Viking Ship

One of the great stories of the fair is that a group of Norwegians sailed from Bergen, Norway across the Atlantic, up through the Erie Canal, across the Great Lakes, and into Chicago. Their goal was to prove that Columbus wasn’t the first to discover the Americas but rather it was the Vikings that had made the journey prior to the Expo’s namesake.

The original ship was a true Viking ship. It was discovered, excavated, and restored in 1880 in Norway. The replica that sailed to the Columbian Expo was named the Viking and made its way to the fair and sat at the docks on Lake Michigan for fairgoers to examine. It sat in front of the Museum of Science and Industry and in Lincoln Park for nearly 100 years and now resides in Geneva, Illinois where the ship is open to the public on a limited basis.

Little Norway

You won’t make it to this one from Rosemont quickly, but the story is too cool not to include here.

The Norway building from the fair was a recreation of a Norwegian chapel. It was originally built in Norway and was transported to Chicago for the expo. After the fair closed, the ornate building was moved a couple of times over the following decade before finding a long-time home in Blue Mounds, Wisconsin. There it served as a museum filled with thousands of artifacts.

However, due to financial restraints, the quaint museum closed its doors in 2014, with many of the artifacts being sold to the local historical society. In 2017, a Norwegian native (the grandson of the man that created many of the buildings carved wood findings over a century ago) purchased the building and moved it back to Norway where it stands today.

Many of us won’t have time to visit the places mentioned above, but there will surely be plenty of Columbian Expo exonumia available for sale and viewing at the ANA’s upcoming show. If you can’t make the show, don’t fret. Much has been written about this grand event in virtually every form of media, some vintage items can be found in the nooks and crannies of book and antique stores, and some fantastic new digital works are available online today. So you can still visit the Columbian Expo through documentaries, historic recollections, photo essays, reprints of period guides, and by reading fictional accounts set in what was called “The White City”. I encourage you to explore this historic rite of passage. Take the time and imagine a budding nation at the gateway of the 20th century and the birthplace of the U.S. classic commemorative series.

Pinnacle Rarities
Pinnacle Rarities
Kathleen Duncan co-founded Pinnacle Rarities in 1992. Based in Olympia, Washington, Pinnacle sought to provide continuing professional service to a clientele composed of collectors, investors and dealers from all 50states and several foreign countries. They tried to specialize in handling the rarest, most desirable coins the industry has to offer. Pinnacle closed in 2022.

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